Travel

This Quirky Midwest City Claims to Be the Center of the Universe

After you see all the art, food, and culture here, you'll think so too.

Sean Pavone/iStock Editorial/Getty Images
Sean Pavone/iStock Editorial/Getty Images
Sean Pavone/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

Any state willing to woo potential movers with $10,000 checks is bound to be a little quirky. And the fact that such an audacious remote worker incentive program-something that sounds like a Bravo-worthy reality show-actually turned out to be a smashing success says a lot about the town of Tulsa’s underrated charms. The zig to Oklahoma’s zag, Tulsa has long been a more eccentric, artsy, and offbeat urban bubble in the state’s northeast region, known as Green Country. Sandwiched between the Ozark Mountains and the Osage Hills, with the Arkansas River cascading through it, the city is as unexpectedly lush as the name suggests, but the surprises here go well beyond the greenery.

As singular a city as they come, Tulsa is the kind of place that differentiates itself at every turn. Like an amalgam of different cities and cultures smooshed together, it’s a city where you can find a Hollywood-style Walk of Fame, a Lord of the Rings-looking cave house, a museum inspired wholly by a Tom Cruise-starring film, enough Art Deco architecture to rival South Beach, and a skyscraper designed as a near-exact replica of New York City’s World Trade Center-albeit precisely half the size. Oh, and Tulsa is apparently the centre of the universe, no biggie.

Unlike its bigger Oklahoma sister city, which feels decidedly modern and metropolitan in comparison, Tulsa is more like the Portland of the Great Plains-endearingly weird and unconventional, unafraid to color outside the lines and take risks. Those aforementioned $10,000 checks to transplants (known as the Tulsa Remote program) proved a smashing success, contributing $62 million to the local economy since its inception in 2018 and retaining more than 90% of new Okies. There must be something about Tulsa. Perhaps it’s the city’s abundant greenery and rolling hills, its myriad James Beard-worthy restaurants, or its easy cost of living. Or perhaps it’s just hard to say no to a city that proudly wears its quirks on its sleeves. Here are all the wonderfully oddball activities to get into.

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

Pay homage to cinematic lore

At first glance, Oklahoma’s second largest city may not seem like the kind of place to have a starry-eyed Walk of Fame, or a booming movie business, or a museum dedicated to a Francis Ford Coppola film. But this former “Oil Capital of the World” has evolved into quite the movie buff.

Circle Cinema is an indie arthouse theatre and art gallery that’s been screening flicks since 1928, making it the oldest movie house in town. Now a non-profit theatre (the only one of its kind in Tulsa) that also features guest speakers, educational events, panel discussions, and community conscious programming, it’s the kind of place where you can feel good about seeing Top Gun: Maverick for the fifth time.

Then there’s the Circle Cinema’s Walk of Fame, a Hollywood-esque ode to actors, musicians, and filmmakers who have connections to Oklahoma in one vague way or another. Located on the sidewalk outside the hallowed cinema, honorees run the gamut from the expected (Kristin Chenoweth, Reba McEntire) to the… less expected (Gary Busey, Ron Howard). Bet you didn’t know Brad Pitt was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma!

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

One of the most famous films ever made in Tulsa, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders was such a big deal that the 1983 movie now has its own museum. A kind of Oklahoman Lord of the Flies, the film tells the story of a gang called the Greasers who clash with the Socials to the point where someone is killed and the teens go AWOL.

The dramatic movie, from one of Hollywood’s most lauded directors, has gone on to accrue quite the cult following-so much so that a museum opened in 2017 in the house that served as a primary filming location. Nowadays, The Outsiders House Museum lets diehard Coppola stans go behind-the-scenes in an intimate setting filled with memorabilia and rare photographs. Between this and Twister The Movie Museum in Wakita, Oklahoma really has a thing for preserving its cinematic lore.

In that case, we can’t wait to see what Tulsa does with Killers of the Flower Moon, the Martin Scorcese blockbuster adaptation of the nonfiction novel from David Grann about murders of Osage people in the 1920s. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brendan Fraser, Robert De Niro, and Jesse Plemons, the movie was filmed entirely in and around Pawhuska, near Tulsa. With a budget of $200 million, it’s one of the biggest movies made in America in recent memory, and looks to be one of the splashiest blockbusters of 2022.

Coupled with the hit FX series Reservoir Dogs and the Sylvester Stallone-led Tulsa King, the mega-movie is cementing Oklahoma’s role-and Tulsa’s in particular-as a new epicentre for film.

Vineyard Perspective/Shutterstock
Vineyard Perspective/Shutterstock
Vineyard Perspective/Shutterstock

Marvel at architecture all its own

Tulsa is low-key one of the most epic cities for Art Deco architecture, with 63 listed buildings-from houses and hotels to theatres and towers-spanning the metro. But beyond that staggering fact, this is also a place for other forms of, shall we say, unique construction.

Case in point: the Cave House. Nestled alongside a tree-lined hill, looking like something Hagrid would haphazardly build while drunk off butterbeer, this architectural oddity originally served as a restaurant and speakeasy in the 1920s (side note: this sounds very cool, please bring this back). Now the building acts as a by-appointment mini-museum offering tours of its funky confines, absurdly steep stairs, and narrow hallways seemingly designed for hobbits. It’s also reportedly haunted by a ghost who steals keys, so keep an eye on your pockets.

krasnal/iStock/Getty Images
krasnal/iStock/Getty Images
krasnal/iStock/Getty Images

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the BOK Tower, a 667-foot, 52-story skyscraper that bears a striking resemblance to New York City’s World Trade Center. That’s because it was designed by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki & Associates, and stands exactly half the height of the Twin Towers, steel columns and all.

Originally known as the One Williams Center, the skyscraper was the vision of John Williams, CEO of Williams Companies, who wanted a decadent tower for his brand and sought to replicate the splendour of the World Trade Center on a slightly more modest scale. Completed in 1976, it was the tallest tower in Oklahoma until Oklahoma City’s Devon Tower usurped it in 2011. From its exterior facade to its interior use of marble walls and bi-level lobby, the parallels between the two towers are striking. Eerily enough, Williams and co. happened to visit the World Trade Center on September 10, 2001.

Then there’s the ironically named Abundant Life Building, a giant windowless concrete cube, bedecked with diamond-shaped marble and gold, that looks more like a gigantic gilded anvil than an office space. Long since abandoned and left devoid of “life,” the seven-story building just south of downtown initially debuted as a boundary-pushing architectural achievement in 1958, used as headquarters for the Oral Roberts Ministries televangelists (that tracks). It got its name, Abundant Life, from founder Oral Roberts’ biblical obsessions, eschewing windows for innovative fluorescents, vibrant paint, and a television studio. Who needs natural light when you’ve got brainwashing to do! Since Oral Roberts moved out of the building in the ‘60s, Abundant Life has sat empty ever since-a bejeweled concrete box in the heart of Tulsa.

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

Indulge in edible wonders

Nowadays, Tulsa has emerged as an up-and-coming foodie wonderland. Though its earned accolades from the James Beard Foundation and dazzling dinners at lesbian-owned tasting menu restaurants, modern bakeries, and breweries that look more Austin than Oklahoma, the city still has plenty of culinary quirks.

Steakhouses are nothing new in this chicken-fried part of the country, but how about a Lebanese-owned, supper-club-style steakhouse? One where you can order a rib-eye with a side of tabouli, za’atar-spiced barbecue sauce, and bologna, with baklava for dessert. Jamil’s Steakhouse was the homegrown vision of Jim “Jamil” Elias, who opened the restaurant in 1945, during a time when Lebanese immigrants were still widespread in Oklahoma and the Tulsa region was teeming with Lebanese expats working in oil fields. By the 1950s, many of them moved into city industries, resulting in numerous Lebanese steakhouses, of which Jamil’s is the last remaining. Though the restaurant has since changed locations, it remains preserved in time and charm, and any steakhouse good enough for Zsa Zsa Gabor is definitely worth visiting.

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

While more contemporary, one of Tulsa’s buzziest new-school steakhouses is no less inventive. Nestled in the alleyways of the eclectic Arts District, Bull in the Alley takes a speakeasy-style approach to steak. Instead of the typically sprawling and flashy steakhouse template, you’ll see no signage and no social media presence, just a minimalist website as secretive as a Beyoncé music drop. Despite being shrouded in mystery, it’s one of the most coveted reservations in town, which you can only make by phone. To find the clandestine restaurant, just look for the moss-green door with a copper bull ornament hanging overhead. Inside, it’s like falling down a swanky rabbit hole to a bygone era of decadent, dimly lit decor, superlative steaks, and high-end shellfish towers. In a steak-loving state like Oklahoma, Bull in the Alley is in a whimsical category all its own.

Trading steak for grog, Tulsa is also surprisingly home to one of the coolest, real-deal tiki bars in the country. Saturn Room has the masterful mixology and immersive kitsch of the best of them, minus the heinous wait times and crowds of, say, a Three Dots and a Dash. Capped by an enormous thatched roof, the tropical bar looks like a misplaced slice of Hawaii in the Arts District, decorated with pufferfish lamps, carved totems, and-leaning into the space-y name-a mural of a mermaid in an astronaut suit. Open since 2015, in the midst of the nationwide tiki boom, the drinks here are as legit as the decor. Look for well-balanced Mai Tais and Caipirinhas alongside seasonal novelties like Planet Chaos, made with bourbon, lime, lemon, blueberry syrup, mango, coconut water, Falernum, and Jamaican bitters. Or go for the Abeja, a salted mezcal medley with Irish whiskey, honey, grapefruit, lime, and ginger.

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

Immerse yourself in music and museums

Along with its architecture, food, and film, music is in the DNA of Tulsa’s culture. It’s a city rich with rock & roll lore, and home to both a Woody Guthrie museum and the new Bob Dylan Center. Heck, Rolling Stone even thinks Tulsa’s got the musical mettle to become the next Austin.

That toe-tapping credit can be traced back to historic roots like Cain’s Ballroom, a mecca for live music that transformed a garage into a dance academy in 1930. American Western singer Bob Wills put the venue on the map in the ‘30s, and while the ballroom fell into disarray for a few decades, it emerged anew in the ‘70s with performers like Elvin Bishop and the Sex Pistols. The bassist for the latter, Sid Vicious, infamously punched a hole in the green room wall, a moment in time that has since been framed and preserved.

While musicians may or may not still be punching holes in walls here, Cain’s Ballroom is a storied setting for live music. The 1,200-capacity venue is one of the top concert halls in the world for ticket sales, attracting big-name acts like Spoon, Fleet Foxes, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Jack White.

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

For a deeper, more intimate dive into Tulsa’s musical pastimes, swing by The Church Studio, a historic stone church-turned-recording studio for Leon Russell and Shelter Records. The building itself dates back to 1915, serving as a series of different churches until Russell purchased it in 1972 and turned it into a workshop for musicians, songwriters, and singers, including the likes of Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, and Tom Petty.

Today, the stone-clad relic is a kind of museum, open to the public for historic tours that showcase the origins of the Tulsa Sound. This singular musical genre-credited to the likes of Leon Russell-fuses elements of rockabilly, blues, country, rock & roll, and swamp rock.

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

Find the heart of the Mother Road and the centre of the universe

For a modest-sized city as humble as Tulsa, it certainly takes a lot of gumption to lay claim as the centre of the universe. With the Route 66 “Mother Road” running directly through it and a mysteriously acoustic concrete circle downtown, these are sure signs that Tulsa is a lot more integral to the cosmos than one might believe.

For starters, there’s Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios, a wonderland of odd sundries and larger-than-life figurines in an old gas station on Route 66. Looking more like an over-the-top art gallery in Marfa, the cheeky pitstop is an elaborate homage to Route 66 and the all-American road trip.

Buck’s features an extensive gift shop stocked with jewellery, clothes, and souvenirs that run the gamut from Bigfoot to the Blue Whale of Catoosa (IYKYK). Reigning over it all is Buck Atom himself, a 21-foot-tall Muffler Man/space cowboy, a kind of Oklahoman Buzz Lightyear whose image shows up on knickknacks throughout the museum-like store. If you’re looking to linger, the shop has an on-site Airbnb, Buck’s Cosmic Crash Pad, behind the shop.

Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist
Photo by Valerie Weihass for Thrillist

As if being the heart and soul of the Mother Road wasn’t enough, how about the fact that Tulsa is purportedly the centre of the existence as we know it? On a nondescript walkway downtown, marked by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it concrete circle, you might inadvertently trod on the epicentre of the universe.

So what makes this random concrete pattern special? It’s the fact that, if you stand in the middle of the circle and speak, your echo will reverberate back at a much higher pitch, while anyone outside the circle supposedly wouldn’t hear a thing-it’s like being in your own private recording studio in a defunct church, you might say. Whatever the unexplained reason for this weird acoustic vortex, and whether or not Tulsa is indeed the centre of the universe, it’s clear that this is one city not lacking in quirks waiting to be heard, seen, tasted, and discovered.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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